What is a Butterfly Ballot?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A butterfly ballot is a type of punch card ballot in which the candidates and issues are displayed on both sides, with a single line of numbered marks to punch which runs down the middle. This design can get confusing, especially for harried voters or voters with poor vision. The butterfly ballot became a topic of intense conversation in the United States in 2000, when it was used in some regions of Florida; some people claim that the butterfly ballot determined the outcome of the hotly contested Presidential election of that year.

The infamous butterfly ballot from Florida featured two pages of Presidential candidates.
The infamous butterfly ballot from Florida featured two pages of Presidential candidates.

Before delving into the specifics of the butterfly ballot, it may help to explain ballots in general and punch card ballots in particular. A ballot is any type of system used to record votes in an election. People have been using paper ballots of various forms for quite a long time, with punch card ballots emerging in the mid-twentieth century. A punch card ballots lists candidates and issues with corresponding numbered marks. To cast a vote, the voter uses a stylus to punch a hole through the corresponding mark.

The controversy over the butterfly ballot was centered on the design, which was rather unusual. Typically, a single page of a punch card ballot contains both the candidates and issues to be voted on and the spaces for punching. In the case of the butterfly ballot, the candidates were spread out across two pages, and the spaces for punching were centered in the middle of the two page spread. In theory, arrows were supposed to point from each candidate to the corresponding space which needed to be marked, but small accidents of misregistration could cause the arrows to be misaligned, making it challenging to figure out which hole should be punched.

The infamous butterfly ballot from Florida featured two pages of Presidential candidates. The top candidate on the first page was Republican, and the second was Democratic, leading people to believe that the corresponding second hole should be used to vote for the Democrat. In fact, the second hole corresponded to a Reform party candidate, who led the list on the second page of the ballot. As a result, many people voted for the wrong candidate by accident, or started to punch and then realized their mistake, causing a dimpled ballot or hanging chad which made counting votes difficult, since the intention of the voter was not clear.

In Florida, butterfly ballots were not used across the state, and many critics observed that they were utilized in traditionally Democratic areas, causing election results to be skewed, as Democratic voters voted for the Reform candidate rather than the Democrat they thought they were voting for. Since the layout of the butterfly ballot favored the Republican candidate for President, some people accused Florida of attempting to rig the election results. Whether or not these accusations were true, the design has not been widely used since, as it was clearly too confusing for voters; many districts also switched to electronic voting machines, rather than punch card ballots.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Democrats control the “traditionally Democratic areas” and Democrat officials approved the Butterfly ballot. This was no nefarious Republican plot. Rather, at best ignorance, at worst incompetence on the part of county officials that are democrats.

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